Braids today, chiskop tomorrow

2013-10-29 16:46

Outspoken writer Hagen Engler has much to say on the power, politics and pleasure of a black woman’s ever-changing hair.

The strides that have been made in hair-extension technology over the past couple of decades have been such that just about every hairstyle is plausibly within the reach and budget of any middle-class woman. And a lot of these ladies reach out and get those extensions. Especially black women.

India Arie might have sung ‘I am not my hair’, but she’s a rarity. Hair provides great insight into any black woman’s identity.

From what I can tell, hair weaves go in and out of fashion, and there is also a natural-hair movement out there. Black women have, since time immemorial, shown a bold and inventive willingness to experiment wildly with their hair.

And more power to their toned ebony arms, I say.

But anyone who dates a black woman in her 20s or 30s needs to brace themselves for an ongoing, rapid-fire series of fundamental appearance changes unrivalled this side of pantomime theatre.

I don’t know how they do it. Me, I like to gently tweak my appearance over the years. Maybe start shaving every four days instead of every three. Cut my hair short on the sides... Grow a ’tache for Movember... But that doesn’t compare to the barrage of different looks my lady has subjected me to. I’ve seen shoulder-length Remy hair, afros with assorted tightnesses of curls, thick braids, thin braids, chiskop, dry curl, dreadlocks, weaves and other styles I don’t have the resources or knowledge to describe.

Now, these image changes are quite a shock for a man. You’ll say cheers in the morning and your lady will have a tight asymmetrical bob like Keri Hilson in that video where she’s levitating over that bed in her underwear.

That evening your lady will return from 11 hours at the saloon (saloon, not salon), and she’ll have these wild auburn tresses down her back like Tina Turner after being pulled through a hedge backwards.

Over time, you learn to swallow your shock, and not to take too sharp an intake of breath when she comes through the door on Hair Day. But being a shallow, superficial being, you never quite get used to it. You’ve just got to remind yourself to go, ‘Wow! You look gorgeous!’ and then, ‘No, no. I was just surprised. I love it!’

And if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Most of the time your lady is going to ask your advice, so it’s good to school yourself up on what are known in the trade as ‘artificial hair integrations’.

Hair-wise, you always want virgin hair or Remy hair. That’s actual human hair that’s been shaved from the scalp and includes the cuticles. Apparently, they harvest this hair in temples in India, where men and women shave off their locks as a special sacrifice. Though the hair is mostly from Tamil Nadu, it still gets called a ‘Brazilian weave’.

With Remy, you also have all the roots and the ends facing the same way, if you follow me. It comes in various colours and lengths. From what I recall, Number 1 is the blackest, and 20 inches is, like, the longest. You don’t want those shiny, artificial weaves; you want it to be natural, human hair, okay? Okay.

Then you’ve got to have it put in, usually not at the same place. The ladies like to shop around for their weaves, then bring them in to their favourite saloon to be installed or inserted, whatever the term is.

And having them put in can cost a fortune – which is why a lot of women get their hair done at those budget hairdressers downtown or in Randburg.

For this, they use various bonding methods. Sometimes they tie cornrows and kind of sew the extensions into the rows. Other times the hair comes with acrylic adhesive tips that are melted onto the natural hair with these hot-metal clamping irons.

The challenge is integrating the natural hair into the weave. Ideally, none of the woman’s own hair will be visible. Ladies may grow the top section of their hair long and straighten it, then get the weaves put in below that. But this is imperfect.

The final frontier of weave technology, the Koenigsegg Agera S of hairpieces – the International Space Station of lady toupées – is the lace-front wig. This is basically a gauze nylon yarmulke.

Because it’s got holes in it, you can pull natural hair through it and bond that to the weave, or you can bond the weave to the lace-front itself and populate parts of your hairline that are going bald.

Getting regular weaves puts pressure on the female hairline, causing balding at the temples, making them look like short, elegant, black, female versions of Jude Law.

This phenomenon is called ‘the flying dog’, or inj’ibhabha. In its worst manifestation, they end up with long hair on top, but bald on the sides – rather like the hairstyle of dubstep superstar Skrillex.

There are photos on the internet showing Naomi Campbell wet and getting out of the pool, revealing her advanced case of flying dog. She’s been wearing weaves for so many decades that she’s practically bald. (Guys, if you have a thing for Naomi Campbell, do not look up those pictures.)

The state of another lady’s hairline can be a terrain of struggle, over which some of the bitchiest comments known to womanhood have been uttered. You don’t want inj’ibhabha – or be suspected of having it.

Some see the flying dog as God’s vengeance upon women who have abandoned their pristine natural Nubian femaleness in an attempt to be more attractive.

According to this philosophy, pride in one’s natural Africanness dictates that one should rather embrace organic beauty by, say, shaving your head with an electric clipper, blow-drying your hair into an afro, bathing it in products with 37 unknown chemical ingredients or rolling it up into two-and-a-half-dozen little hair sausages and sealing them with Knotty Boy dreadlock wax.

That debate is not for us to get into here. There’s really no place for the white man in domestic politics. Suffice it to say that a black woman’s hair is her crowning glory in ways that a man’s very basic scruffy topping can never be. It must be nurtured, maintained, protected, wrapped up at night, protected from precipitation and venerated.

For black women, ‘gettin’ their hurr did’ is a career move, a political statement, a social signifier and a celebration of self as much as a grooming routine. It’s a thing of power and glory that can’t be fully understood, but must be respected and worshipped from afar.

Here, then, are the five key tips for men on how to handle the hurr, or not to handle it... Do not touch the hair. As a man – or perish the thought, a white man – you are not qualified to know what is going on under there. Don’t stroke it, don’t pat it, don’t run your fingers through it.

Don’t go to the saloon. It’s a place of mysterious secrets. Like certain other primal aspects of femininity, your relationship will not necessarily benefit from your witnessing these. Also, the time frames involved, the gossip and reading material available are beyond the endurance of most normal men.

Approve. It’s poor form to show dislike. Shower your lady with compliments. She’ll appreciate these, even though her female intuition will sense whether you ‘really’ like it or not.

Enjoy it! Your lady is redoing her image every four weeks. She’s like Lady Gaga, but sexy! With every relaunch, her moods and her personality will subtly change in response to your responses. It really is a bit like getting a new girlfriend delivered every payday.

Chip in. From time to time, you may be asked to contribute to the hair fund. It is not a cheap undertaking, and is closer in cost to car instalments than barber-shop visits. Accept that the hair is as much for your benefit as hers, and pay up.

‘I’ve seen shoulder-length Remy hair, afros with assorted tightnesses of curls, thick braids, thin braids, chiskop, dry curl, dreadlocks, weaves and other styles I don’t have the resources or knowledge to describe’

* Extracted from Marrying Black Girls for Guys Who Aren’t Black (MF Books, Jacana, R180) by Hagen Engler.

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